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Slovakia: September election likely after failed referendum

January 23, 2023

Caretaker Prime Minister Eduard Heger has been unable gain a new majority in parliament and plans to call an early election this fall. Some fear the result could threaten liberal democracy in Slovakia.

A man casts his vote in a polling station in Slovakia on January 21, 2023
Turnout in Saturday's referendum on calling early elections failed to meet the 50% thresholdImage: Frantiöek Iv·n/TASR/picture alliance

The government of Prime Minister Eduard Heger was toppled by Slovakia's parliament last December when 78 out of 150 MPs backed a motion of no confidence in the government. Since then, Heger, of the center-right OLANO party (ORDINARY PEOPLE and Independent Personalities), has been leading the country in a caretaker capacity and negotiating with parties in an attempt to find a new majority.

But it was Richard Sulik, leader of one of his previous coalition partners, the Freedom and Solidarity party (SaS), who abruptly put an end to Heger's efforts early last week by announcing that he would not support the PM's attempt to form a new cabinet.

Slovakian caretaker Prime Minister Eduard Heger listens during a news conference in Tallinn, Estonia, November 11, 2022
The parties in PM Eduard Heger's caretaker government have agreed to hold an election on September 30Image: INTS KALNINS/REUTERS

"As of today, I consider all my efforts to rebuild the coalition over," said Heger at a media briefing last week. "I will meet my political partners and discuss the subject of an early election with them. Right now, the most probable date is September."

Referendum on calling early elections

In a bid to lower the number of votes needed from MPs to call an early election from 90 to 76, the Social Democratic Smer party, one of the strongest opposition parties in the country, triggered a referendum on whether the Slovak constitution should be amended to allow an election to be held before the end of the four-year parliamentary term.

Even though the caretaker government had already agreed to an early election, Smer's leader, Robert Fico, argued that an election should be held much earlier than September. "The coalition is only giving us another nine months of its incompetence," he said in a statement.

Another failed referendum

In Slovakia, a turnout of over 50% is needed for the result of a referendum to be deemed valid. Turnout in Saturday's referendum was only 27.25%.

Radoslav Stefancik, a political scientist from the University of Economics in Bratislava, said it was no surprise this threshold was not reached because Slovakia has a long history of failed referendums. "There was only one successful referendum, the one about joining the EU, when a little over 50% of citizens participated, but none since then," he said.

Will an early election bring stability or just more uncertainty?

After the referendum result was announced, the parties in the caretaker cabinet agreed to hold an election on September 30.

Stefancik believes that an early election is the only option for the country right now and that the decision should have been taken sooner. "The parliament has been impotent," he told DW, "it has been unable to pass any laws for a long time. It will be better for everyone to end this."

Nevertheless, uncertainties remain, first of which is when the election will actually take place. While all parties in the caretaker coalition back the September date suggested by Heger, other parliamentary parties think the election should be held as soon as possible, preferably before the summer.

Popular president with little political power

Amid all this political chaos, President Zuzana Caputova is proving to be a stabilizing factor, although she only has limited authority and her role is more ceremonial than political. Caputova, who will meet with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin on Tuesday, is one of the most openly pro-EU, pro-western politicians in the country.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) and Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova (right) at a press conference in Kosice, Slovakia, April 27, 2022
Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova (right) will meet German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) in Berlin on Tuesday, January 24Image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

According to polls conducted last fall, she is also one of the most trusted politicians in Slovakia. Political scientist Aneta Vilagi from the Faculty of Arts at Comenius University Bratislava points out, however, that the president cannot interfere directly in the political process. "The president can talk about her values that connect to a certain political camp, but she cannot directly support anyone," she said. "Voters have to decide for themselves."

However, if the parliament cannot agree on a date for the early election, she can appoint a technocratic government to rule until an election takes place.

Fall election paves way for new parties

Vilagi thinks that an election in the fall would allow new political parties to form. Former PM Mikulas Dzurinda (in office between 1998–2006), is planning to create a new right-wing, pro-EU, pro-western party. Some experts say such a party could be attractive for voters given Dzurinda's enduring popularity.

However, Dzurinda is not alone: Slovak MEP Lucia Duris Nicholsonova is establishing a new party, Jablko (Apple), which will also target pro-EU voters.

There have also been rumors that caretaker PM Eduard Heger might leave the OLANO party and try to set up a new party for conservative, pro-EU voters. Whether these potential pro-EU parties would join forces and run as an alliance is unclear, although some politicians believe it would be the right move.

Liberal democracy at stake?

Former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini who was in office from 2018–2020 is currently considered one of the most likely candidates to head a new government after an early election. Previously a member of Smer, Pellegrini is now head of a new Social Democratic party, Hlas. It has been topping opinion polls for months now and there is a good chance that Pellegrini will be asked to form a government after the election.

Pellegrini describes himself as pro-EU, so he could form a new coalition with other similarly focused parties. Although Pellegrini cooperated with the right-wing extremist Republika (Republic) party in last year's regional elections, he might also reach an agreement with Smer.

Slovakian politician and former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini
Former PM Peter Pellegrini is considered one of the most likely candidates to head a new government after an early electionImage: Vaclav Salek/CTK/IMAGO

Radoslav Stefancik fears that liberal democracy in Slovakia could be threatened by an early election. "Looking at the history of early elections in Slovakia, they have always brought autocratic parties into power; parties that pulled us back into the past and did not value the principles of liberal democracy," he said.

He added that parties like Smer, which has long been campaigning against assistance for Ukraine and focusing on euroskeptic, pro-Russian voters, might gain from an early election. "There is a real chance Slovakia might choose to follow in the footsteps of [Viktor] Orban's Hungary," he said.

Edited by: Keno Verseck and Aingeal Flanagan

Slovakian PM in DW interview

A red-haired woman (Sona Otajovicova) stands beside a large shrub and smiles into the camera
Sona Otajovicova Bratislava-based Slovakia correspondent